Lesson 6: Court House/County Research
Lesson 6 is courtesy of Jean R. Legried, copyright 1996. Her work is
available at: www.rootsweb.com/~newbie. Used with permission. Note:
Lessons with"added notes" italicized are added "Net
Notes" (N2) by DB Dale.
This lesson is a bit long - lot of material to cover: The definition and
use of records, as well as the differentiation as to whether a record is to
be considered as public or non-public, is regulated by state law. Laws
differ from state to state -- what is a public record in one state may be
non-public in another. Acquaint yourself with the laws in the states where
you will be searching.
Where these records are kept can also vary from state to state. In some
states, especially the northeastern states, these records are considered as
town, municipal, or village records and will be found in said repositories.
As county records in other states they're found in the county courthouse.
County boundaries changed so what is considered Washington County now may
well have been a part of a neighboring county during the era you are research-
ing. It's happened that a county has two courthouses! In one Kansas County
I recall reading about an actual battle over where the county seat would be.
A good reference for helping determine county boundaries, years, and record
locations is THE HANDY BOOK FOR GENEALOGISTS, 8th ed., edited by George B.
Everton (Logan, Utah: The Everton Publishers, 1991)
Always call ahead to determine county hours and record availability.
When you go to a courthouse or town office, know what you are looking for.
Be firm but friendly (genealogists aren't a clerk's favorite customers!).
Dress for business avoiding blue jeans and sloppy shirts. Treat the
records with respect, thanking the clerk when you leave.
PUBLIC RECORDS THAT CAN BE USED AS GENEALOGICAL RESOURCES
1. Birth certificates
2. Marriage licenses and intentions to marry
3. Marriage license returns
4. Marriage records
5. Death certificates
Only 18 states (by law) registered vital records before 1900: Vermont
(1779)Massachusetts (1842), New Jersey (1843), Connecticut (1859), Hawaii,
Rhode Island Virginia (1853), Delaware (1861), Florida (1865), Michigan(1867),
Arizona, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York (1880),Illinois (1887), Maine (1892),
North Dakota (1893), Maryland (1898). Other states have incomplete records
before 1900. Errors occurred in these records and, since there wasn't an
uniform reporting system, some events were never recorded. However, early
Americans were religious people and kept good church records. Sometimes
this information can be found in church records. (See I Lesson - Church,
Cemetery, and School Records).
A very important approach to learning family history is through land
records. Land records relating to the buying and selling of land can yield
family and local history facts. Land records include deeds, mortgages,
leases, liens, contracts, powers of attorney, releases, notices of action,
judgments, and decrees.
Considerable family history can be gleaned through a careful search of
deeds. This is especially true in the case of an estate of a person who died
without leaving a will. When real estate is involved it becomes necessary
to "quiet the title." Such a file will often give the names and residences
of living children, as well as any children who may be deceased and the
children of the deceased children.
A deed often mentions relationships between the grantee and the grantor.
It can also give you a clue as to where the seller moved if he wasn't able
to sell the land before he had to move or if he bought the property before
he moved to the area. In tracking down my 3rd ggf, Edward Tyndal Dale, I
learned from his wife's will that there was property in Arkansas. The
record of deeds showed he had purchased the property while still in NY in
Medical School in 1877.
There is a great deal that can be learned from land records -- much more
than just the legal description of the land. A informative article relating
to land records is "Retracing the Trails of Your Ancestors Using Deed
Records", GENEALOGY BULLETIN, no. 25, Jan-Feb 1995.
If a person owned real or personal property, they had to pay taxes! Even
if your ancestor wasn't a land owner, he still had to pay a personal
property tax. These records often are not indexed and are hard to search
but they can give you valuable information about your ancestor's financial
and personal status. If a man is shown as a tax payer in 1815 but his wife
is the payer in 1816, you have a clue as to when to look for a probate file.
These are excellent sources! Ask for a probate file, not just a will,
beause the complete file has so much more to offer. There is probably no
source material more important in family history than probate files.
They consist largely of wills and administrations and other documents
relating to the settlement of the estate of the deceased or incompetent
person. In a man's will he named his wife and children, or, if he did not
leave a will, the court determined his heirs and distributed his estate to
his widow and children. In either case, the family group was determined by
sound legal evidence. A will is primary material and is presented in the
first person, as though the testator was speaking directly to you and
bonding generations past and present. To properly evaluate probate
information, you should become somewhat familiar with the social/cultural
conventions of the time. This is a lengthy study area and too involved to
include here. Your public library will have books that explain such social
conventions and there is a short but informative section on the subject in
KNOW YOUR ANCESTORS by Ethel W. Williams, Ph.D (Rutland, Vt: Charles E.
Tuttle Co., 1960).
There was no regulation of naturalization until 1906, when Congress
established the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. Before 1906
naturalization was a matter for the courts. The process of naturalization
is quite cumbersome and the records have suffered because of it. The laws
concerning naturalization changed many times so the records that are
available depend on the era your ancestor immigrated. Before 1906
naturalization was a court matter and records will be found in the court
records. After 1906 many records can be found in the National Archives
Branches or in the Immigration and Naturalization Service. An excellent
book on the subject is LOCATING YOUR IMMIGRANT ANCESTOR by James C. and
Lila Lee Neagles (Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, Inc., 1975). Being
from the Midwest, many of my ancestors were Germans from Russia, with over
200 immigrating in 1876. One of my grandfathers was born in 1892 in a sod
hut in Eastern Kansas. When his parents arrived 16 years earlier they
didn't speak English only German and Russian and as the flight from Russia
was in large part due to reasons of opression, they kept to themselves.
Even if birth records had been kept before 1900, because of the above
reasons, there probably wouldn't have been a report. My grandparents
obtained their birth certificates in the 1930s, through special application.
These very important records are seldom used. There are two categories of
Court records -- criminal and civil. Civil actions deal with the protection
of individual rights and, generally speaking, every civil action has two
parties: plaintiff and defendant. Both civil and criminal court files are
indexed. The United States court system is a bit complex for discussion
here but your public library will have helpful books.
Divorce is one of the civil court actions. Files contain information on the
children, their ages and personal data on the divorcing couple. Having had
occassion to bank finance a number of divorces over the years, I can safely
say some of these files could provide an entire chapter for your family
history book, if there was such an event and you were so inclined. Many
court clerks in recent years have established a separate index for divorce
records but in earlier years they can be found in the civil court files.
a. Register of voters (Remember, a convicted felon can't vote)
b. Coroner's files
c. Minutes of Board of Supervisors/Commissioners meetings
* These can be helpful to find someone who was buried "by
the county" in the early years and doesn't have a death
certificate or grave marker and for information on people
who lived at the Poor Farm.
d. Miscellaneous records pertaining to land
* These will sometimes give relationships.
e. Military records(see Military Section:
* Discharge certificates
* DD-214 (separation papers)
* Individual veterans are responsibile for filing their
records, but their unit administration forwarded the individuals
records to the personnel center. I checked my records once
and found they weren't accurate. Went to Washington for two
weeks of duty and checked in with the HQ. Finally found a
sargent in charge of the records and asked him what the
problem was. He'd just taken over the office, seems the
reservists paper work/filing had backed up for over five
years, he was told to clean it up, all records had been
destroyed. I went from 15 years toward retirement to 9
with one bonfire, I wasn't alone. Three reserve units, two
had disbanded - You're suppose to resubmit or call it a day?
WORDS AND TERMS USED IN PUBLIC RECORDS
ABSTRACT - A summary of the important points in a book or manuscript.
ABSTRACTOR - A person who prepares an abstract.
ABSTRACT OF TITLE - An epitome of the successive conveyances and other facts
upon which a person's title to a piece of land rests.
ADMINISTRATION - The management and disposal, under the local authority, of
the estate of an intestate, or of a testator having no competent executor.
ADMINISTRATOR - A person to whom letters of administration, that is
authority to administer the estate of a deceased person, have been granted
by the proper court. He/She differs from an executor in that he is
appointed by the court, while the executor is appointed by the deceased.
ADMINISTRATION WITH WILL ANNEXED - Administration granted where the testator
has appointed no executor, or where his/her appointment of an executor,
for any cause, has failed, as by death, incompetency or refusal to act.
ANTENUPTIAL CONTRACT - A contract made before marriage, between a man and a
woman in respect to their property rights.
APPLICATION, LAND - A formal request for rights in, or eventual title to
ATTEST - To witness the execution of a written instrument, at the request of
one who makes it, and subscribe to the same as a witness.
BEQUEST - A gift by will; a legacy.
BOUNTY LAND - Land given by the government, as a bounty, usually in
compensation for military service.
BOUNTY LAND WARRANT - A right granted for military service, involving a
specific number of acres of unallocated public land.
CADASTRAL SURVEY, MAP OR PLAT - A public land survey for the purpose of
registering the quantity, value, and ownership of real estate, used in
apportioning taxes; usually made on a scale of 25" to the mile, or a
square inch to the acre.
CODICIL - An instrument made subsequently to a will, and modifying it in
some respects. It must be executed in the same manner as the will
itself, and forms a part of it.
DEED - A sealed instrument in writing, duly executed, and delivered, by
which one person conveys land, tenements, or hereditaments to another.
DEVISEE - A person to whom lands or other real property are devised or
given by will.
DIVISOR - A giver of lands of real estate by will; a testator.
DISTRICT LAND OFFICE PLAT BOOKS - Books of maps which show the location
of the land of the patenter.
DISTRICT LAND OFFICE TRACT BOOKS - Books which list individual entries
by range and township.
DONATION APPLICATION - An application for frontier land in Florida,
New Mexico, Oregon or Washington, which was given to a settler and
fulfilled certain conditions.
ET. AL.; ET ALIBI; ET ALII - And others; on a land deed, is a clue to
look for "the others".
EXECUTOR - A person appointed by a testator to carry out the directions
and requests of his/her will, and to dispose of the property according
to his/her testamentary provisions, that are to be carried out after
his/her death. An EXECUTRIX is a female executor.
GRANT - To give or bestow, as a land grant.
GRANTEE - A person to whom a grant is made.
GRANTOR - A person by whom a grant is made.
HOLOGRAPHIC WILL - A will made in the handwriting of the testator.
INTESTATE - Not having made a will; not disposed of by will.
INVENTORY - A list of the assets in the estate of a deceased person,
filed by executor, or administrator of an estate, in probate court.
LAND ENTRY PAPERS - Papers filed in connection with the acquisition of
public lands, and including bounty land warrants, donation, pre-emption
and homestead applications, private land claims, land scrip and purchase
by cash or in installments. They include the name of the person who
acquired the land, his place of residence, dates when application and
land were entered, and date of patent.
LEGACY - A bequest left by last will and testament.
LEGAL DESCRIPTION - The description and identification of the location of
a particular parcel of land, according to the official plat of survey.
LIBER - A book in which deeds, mortgages, wills and other public records
NUNCUPATIVE WILL - An unwritten will, having been declared or dictated by
the testator in his/her last sickness, before a sufficient number of
witnesses, and afterwards reduced to writing.
PATENT - A document which transfers legal title to public lands.
PATENTEE - A person who receives a patent.
PRE-EMPTION APPLICATION - An application by a person who had already
settled on unappropriated land.
PRIVATE LAND CLAIM - A claim to land granted to individuals from foreign
countries prior to the cession of that land to the United States.
These were in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana,
Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado, and New Mexico.
PROBATE - The process of proving a will or settling an estate.
PUBLIC DOMAIN - Public lands of the United States; comprised, Illinois,
Indiana, Michigan, part of Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi,
and all states west of the Mississippi River except Texas,Hawaii, and Alaska.
STATUS PLAT - A copy of the plat of survey upon which has been diagrammed
and noted such information as is necessary to determine the Federal
ownership of public lands and resources.
TESTAMENT - The disposition of one's property after death.
TESTATE ESTATE - An estate which is disposed by will.
TESTATOR - A deceased person who died leaving a will.
TRACT BOOK - A narrative, journal-like record which is an index to and
digest of all essential actions and transactions which effect public
lands. District Land Office Tract Books list entries by range and
WARRANT - To guarantee to a purchaser or other grantee, the title to, or
quality, or quantity of, the thing sold or granted, as a warranty deed.
WILL - Any legally executed instrument in which a person makes disposition
of his/her property to take effect after his/her death.